Chris Froome and his struggle for greatness

Philippa York on the Briton's quest to join the five-time Tour winners' club

One thing that stands out in regards to Team Sky's spin of Chris Froome's salbutamol case is their brazenness in describing Bernard Hinault as "ill-informed and uneducated". That was a statement they didn't dig out of the 'How to Win Friends and Influence People' manual.

Having ridden with ‘The Badger’, I can assure you that he won't have taken kindly to such a slight on his intelligence or his powers of observation. The French public certainly wouldn't have appreciated it, either, especially given that the Tour de France happens to take part on their territory. Though Hinault wasn't exactly a media darling, he did command respect for how he raced and how he stood up for himself. Back when we raced together, if something was wrong, he told you quite often and in no uncertain manner. To this day, even the average French person who follows the race kind of likes that part of his character.

Of course, once he retired, he mellowed with age and became part of the ASO's machine. Far from put out to pasture, he was given the duty of podium appearances, and while his previous lack of tact as a rider began to fade in the eyes of many, that shouldn't be confused with any loss of mental sharpness or a recognition of delicate situations, because that's not the case at all.

It was an unwise move on the part of Chris Froome's camp to be calling out someone as prominent as Bernard Hinault because the Breton still holds massive influence in the cycling world and in his home country. So with worries over whether Froome and Team Sky will be intimidated or receive verbal abuse from the roadside, it wasn't a smart thing to do.

As one of the all-time greats and the most tenacious of the five-Tour-titles club members, alongside Jacques Anquetil, Eddy Merckx and Miguel Indurain, Hinault does know what he's talking about, and from his ASO role he understands which situations cause concern and which ones don't.

So with Chris Froome set to be included in Team Sky's starting line up in Noirmoutier-en-l’Ile, it's looking very likely that the quartet of five-time winners could become a quintet. But will that mean Chris Froome becomes one of the greats at the same time?

Since 2013, Froome has arguably been the dominant rider at the major stage races. Two Tour de Romandies, three Critèriums du Dauphinè, a couple of Tours of Oman, and one Vuelta a Andalucia. Then there are the Grand Tours, with four Tours de France in five years, a Vuelta a España after numerous podiums, and then this year's Giro d’Italia, with the most impressive stat of all being that he's won the last three Grands Tours one after the other. If he wins the 2018 Tour de France, that'll become four in a row.

On paper, if that's not a sign of greatness, then what is?

However, there's more to greatness than just your palmarès.

If you do want to look at results, then you'll notice that there's no Tour de Suisse, Paris-Nice, Pais Vasco or Volta a Catalunya. There's no Tirreno-Adriatico, although he did finish second in 2013. And there's no Tour of Britain or any of the smaller national tours.

Small fry, you might suggest. However, the most striking thing missing from the Team Sky rider's palmarès is one-day events, as there have been barely any starts in the Classics. There's nothing from Flèche Wallonne, Liège-Bastogne-Liège or Il Lombardia.

The Worlds road races are another absence, with no finishes and not one participation where he had any influence on the result at all.

The lack of one-day success is a major hole in the case for greatness, but it's understandable in the context of just how specialised the requirements are for Grand Tour superiority. Endurance takes precedence over having an explosive acceleration to survive or make the decisive moves in the Worlds or the Classics.

For Merckx, Hinault and Indurain, the demands of those eras were different, as they were required to be competitive in every type of event. Vincenzo Nibali has that similar breadth of talent that seems to have eluded Froome.

Another element to greatness is style, and in that department Froome just isn't elegant, imposing or even intimidating in the way that guys like Francesco Moser, Sean Kelly or Greg LeMond were.

Bike handling and positioning in the group without a team to guide him is probably another skill missing, and although it seems trivial, it's a sign of respect from the other riders that he doesn't seem to command.

Yes, he can descend, but it's not the same as making it into the first 10 at the start of the Poggio or the Mur de Huy. No, there are certain idiosyncrasies to greatness, some earned and some given, that elude Chris Froome. However, you can't argue with the Grand Tour success, the ruthlessness and the mental toughness.

Of course, any claim to greatness surrounding Froome is also going to be influenced by the Vuelta salbutamol adverse analytical finding, and what the outcome of that case is going to be. The story, and how it has unfolded, has, however, affected his believability and those of Team Sky ever since those Fancy Bears did their fancy hacking.

And of course, the quartet of five-time Tour de France winners have all been linked to dubious practices, but times have changed, and when you set out your moral and ethical compass as being whiter than white – like Team Sky have – then the failure to live up to that mission statement is rather disappointing.

Team Sky set out with imposing black jerseys. Then they became innocent in white, and now they are black and white. Make of that what you will.

So, will Chris Froome become a de facto great after a fifth Tour de France win? Maybe the answer to that question lies with the current quartet of that select club. Just don't ask The Badger.

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The 2018 Tour de France starts on July 9 and concludes on July 29 in Paris. Cyclingnews will have complete live coverage from the race, as well as race analysis, blogs, video highlights and podcasts from the team on the ground.

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